The Pulse | Security | South Asia

India’s Radioactive Bazaar

Recurring incidents involving the theft and sale of nuclear materials demonstrate why India must develop an independent nuclear regulatory body.

India’s Radioactive Bazaar

Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP) Units 1 and 2 at Kudankulam in Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu, India.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Reetesh Chaurasia

While global markets are taking a dip due to economic recession, India’s illicit uranium market seems to be flourishing. In February, eight people including two Indian nationals, were apprehended in Nepal for illegally possessing and attempting to sell a “uranium like substance.” The material was reportedly smuggled from India.

This was not just a one-off incident – theft and illegal sale of nuclear and radioactive material in India is a recurring phenomenon. Earlier in May 2021, reports of the seizure of 7 kilograms of highly radioactive uranium, worth 210 million Indian rupees, from a scrap dealer raised serious concerns about India’s nuclear security capabilities. Over the past two decades, over 200 kilograms of nuclear and radioactive material has reportedly disappeared from Indian facilities.

Frequent incidents of loss and theft of nuclear and radioactive materials in India indicate the failure of the nuclear security system at multiple levels. First, there seems to be a gap in the material accounting and control system. As per international practices and guidelines, each facility – from uranium mines to enrichment facilities and reactors – is supposed to have a stringent material accounting and control system to ensure that not even an iota of material is left unaccounted. Second, the nature of incidents in India hints at the involvement of insiders – someone working at the nuclear facilities or mining sites working independently or colluding with an outsider. This indicates the serious risk of insider threat and a failure of the personnel reliability program. Third, the recurrence of nuclear security lapses with such impunity indicates serious issues with the nuclear security culture in India.

Any country developing a civilian or military nuclear program is required to have a robust regulatory system and infrastructure in place. A strong and independent regulatory authority or infrastructure would ensure that all nuclear activities in a country – from mining and milling to nuclear plants – follow prescribed international standards as specified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). That should not only include control over hardware and physical installations, but also a stringent check on the qualification and conduct of human resource as well.

While countries like India, with military programs, would not share details of their military installations for obvious security and credibility reasons, their civilian regulatory infrastructure would serve as a benchmark and may give a sense of what their military infrastructure possesses. In fact, considering the inherently sensitive nature of a military program, one would argue that in all likelihood, the military side would have more stringent systems in place to ensure that no security incident happens involving strategic assets of a country.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

In India’s case, the important element of stringent security measures implemented by an independent nuclear regulatory body is missing. India’s Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), which oversees the safety and security measures in the country, is not independent in its position and function. It is a subset of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), which is responsible for nuclear operations in the country. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that AERB would have the power to stop any operations undertaken by DAE even if it is found to not be in line with prescribed international standards.

In 2011, to offset international pressure and to allay growing domestic concerns over nuclear safety after the Fukushima accident in Japan, the Indian government under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh introduced the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority (NSRA) Bill with the aim to establish a more independent nuclear regulator. Members of the Standing Committee of Science and Technology criticized the proposed bill as ineffective to ensure functional autonomy of the regulatory body. The bill, however, was never taken up in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India’s Parliament, and has lapsed.

In 2015, India hosted an Integrated Regulatory Review Service (IRRS) mission of the IAEA to review the country’s regulatory framework for the safety of its Nuclear Power Plants (NPPs). In this safety review mission, there were serious questions raised over the inefficacy of India’s regulatory setup. In its recommendations, the review mission suggested that “the Government should embed in law, the AERB as an independent regulatory body separated from other entities having responsibilities or interests that could unduly influence its decision making.” In response to that criticism, there was some movement to reintroduce the NSRA Bill. A series of inter-ministerial meetings were held with the aim to introduce a new draft of the bill, but to date, there has been no further development in that regard.

It is, however, noteworthy that even if the NSRA Bill is tabled again and gets approved by the Indian Parliament, it will only address at the safety aspect of the regulatory board. The regulation of security measures would still be not independent of the DAE.

Besides the IAEA, voices within India have raised serious concerns over the country’s fast-expanding nuclear program on the one hand, and absence of stringent safety and security measures on the other. For example, India’s Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) warned about the gaps in nuclear security  and the relationship between the AERB and DAE.

It is important to note that nuclear security is a national responsibility. Nuclear threats and the potential consequences of nuclear terrorism can transcend international borders; therefore, there are justified concerns from the international community, especially neighboring states. Pakistan has pointed to multiple security lapses in India’s nuclear infrastructure because, in case of any incident of nuclear terrorism, the transboundary spread of radioactivity might affect the entire neighborhood directly.

At the international level, states developing civilian nuclear programs are required to undertake and fulfill certain security requirements that are shared in the form of information circulars and other technical guides by the IAEA. The primary legal measure is the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) and its 2005 amendment, both of which India has signed and ratified. India should have an independent and robust nuclear regulatory authority that would act as a watchdog and oversee if anything is not up to the mark. The country is also a party to the IAEA’s INFCIRC/869, which came out as a key takeaway from the Nuclear Security Summit process and entails additional responsibilities such as self-assessments and other international cooperation. Due to the lack of requisite nuclear security measures, India consistently ranks low in the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s Nuclear Security Index.

Currently, there are 22 nuclear reactors in operation and an additional 21 are under construction in India. The state receives nuclear fuel from various countries, such as Canada and Kazakhstan. Apart from that, nuclear and radioactive material is also used in medicine and industry.

The absence of stringent security protocols may embolden unscrupulous elements within the system as well as terrorist outfits in the country to acquire nuclear material for financial gains or use it for terrorism purposes. The consequences of such a situation would be immensely dangerous. Therefore, India’s desire for proper integration into the global non-proliferation architecture such as membership of Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) should be contingent upon New Delhi’s ability to streamline its nuclear security measures. Similarly, CPPNM’s upcoming review conference should also add moral pressure on India for greater nuclear responsibility.